breasts

Photo credit: Ralf Roletschek. The boobs’ provenance is unknown.

How can you get pure, blatant fabrication published by America’s ABC News and MSN, Germany’s Bild, and that electronic trash heap that is the Huffington Post? You might try making it about breasts.

Two years ago “yarkko” set up a profile on TargetMap (a mapmaking site) and plugged in values for the “average breast cup size” of every country in the world, presumably as a very tedious act of masturbation. The software obligingly spit out this map of the world’s breast sizes. There were no references, and yarkko was never heard from again.

That map is plausible if glanced at in the most offhand way possible — Scandinavians are shown as bigger-breasted than the Chinese — but let it wash into focus and it’s unmistakably ridiculous. Are we to believe that North Korea, which hasn’t even released economic statistics since the 1960s, has both measured and published statistics on its citizens’ breasts? Or that a researcher who traveled around assessing Saudi or Somali women’s breasts would live to tell the tale? Or that all of this information — from every country in the world — has somehow been collected, collated and standardized to American bra measurements?

Express, a German regional newspaper, seems to have been the first to buy it anyway, or at least see it as an opportunity. On March 31, 2011 they used “news” of the map as an excuse to publish a photo essay on the boobs of an American actress, a German porn star, and a Russian model, among others. In the paper’s brief article, which probably never made it past readers’ peripheral vision, they noted that both the source and truthfulness of the map are “unclear”.

The national German tabloid Bild picked up the “story” on April 25, 2012, and went a step further by creating their own branded graphic to replace the original map. They credited their source as TargetMaps, which is a bit like citing YouTube as the creator of “Gangnam Style”. A day after going to press, they noted in a blog post that it was “puzzling” that there were no sources for what they had just published, and that “one might assume” that the whole thing was made up. This was not framed as an apology or a retraction, mind you, just an observation in a post titled “Hooray for Boobies”.

Insouciant, explicit lying on the part of a newspaper makes me want to start a bonfire. But for ABC News, MSN, Cosmopolitan and the Huffington Post all this was apparently an inspiration. They soon ran their own stories on the map, some now citing Bild as its creator. The first two outlets are brand names associated with traditional political news, where Americans also, in theory, get information on things like picking our president. The third is arguably the biggest source of terrible sex advice for the world’s women. And the last is considered by far too many a paragon of the future of journalism. The map was also continues to make the rounds on smaller blogs and Twitter.

Recently on National Public Radio (USA) I heard a yet another one of those stories about how HuffPost and even newer monstrosities like Buzzfeed (which also published the boob map) are teaching more traditional news outlets how to survive in the internet era. “…Content has to be compelling and novel and interesting enough that a person is willing to pass it along to another person,” Buzzfeed’s president Jon Steinberg admonished the NPR reporter. He added that Buzzfeed is becoming the place that young people “come to for their hard-hitting news and reporting.”

The “compelling, novel, interesting” bit sounds kind of like the definition of news that we discussed in my 1990s high school journalism class, except that my (heroic) teacher Jack Kennedy also emphasized that such things should be “true”. Is it cliché to point out that in the context of aggregated and social-centric journalism, truth has become a quaint bystander?

How will we ever learn about the world’s breasts?

“Who cares about journalistic diligence,” Bild boasted in its blog, “if you have a map of the world’s tits?” Well, I would argue exactly the opposite. I’m not doubting the newsworthiness of such a map, if a nonfiction version existed. All those shares, all that interest — this is something people really do need and want to know more about. Breasts are fun, fascinating, lovely things. I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t more important things in the world, but information of sexual interest is too often downgraded and deprioritized, leading fact-free idiots like yarkko and his big-media conspirators to fill in the gaps.

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I’d argue that our heightened interest on a subject makes it all the more important that what we read is actually true. Those who read and shared the above stories did so because they thought they were learning something about the world’s breasts — if they had been savvy enough to understand that they were being fed bullshit, they wouldn’t have bothered with any of it. We can only hope that as people discover small, individual lies like this breast map, they will eventually give up on the media outlets that disseminated it, or that the outlets will be forced to change.

Kennedy, my teacher, was once asked what hope there was, in the face of all the misinformation that gets published. He stared out the window. You have to have faith that truth will eventually win out, he said, half-convincingly. After all, what else can you do?

In the meantime, I’m afraid we’re left with no reliable worldwide survey of breasts, and the TP finance department won’t likely authorize such a major undertaking any time soon. The best we can do is continue to offer carefully researched smut on other international topics, like first-hand reports on how to kiss Brazilians or academic study of how drunk you should be when attempting to speak a foreign language. But, dear readers, I promise that as soon as TP acquires the resources of HuffPo or ABCNews, we’ll get right on the question of the world’s boobs.